Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: A’s (and not for effort) Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his star pupil miss a full week of class due to sickness only to completely ace the exam on his first day back, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt, Joe Burrow, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt sacks Joe Burrow. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger missed the entire week of practice due to COVID-19 restrictions, but he hardly missed a beat against the Bengals. Roethlisberger wasn’t perfect. He’s improving on his long balls but can still improve more. But playing without a running game, Ben Roethlisberger led 7 scoring drives while going 4 four touchdown passes in 5 trips to the Red Zone. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had another rough day, rushing for just 36 yards on 13 carries. Benny Snell did well in garbage time gaining 12 yards on 3 carries. Conner did catch both passes that were thrown to him and did well in pass protection. The Bengals schemed to stop the run, Conner had little room to run before the Steelers gave up altogether. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught two of six passes thrown his way although both catches converted 1st downs and put the Steelers in Bengals territory on scoring drives. Zach Gentry got on the field for 14 snaps. Neither of the tight ends helped much with the run blocking. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson exploded for his first 100 yard game with Ben Roethlisberger, including a field flipper that set up his and the Steelers first touchdown. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 9 catches and kept the chains moving in short yardage situations while adding his own touchdown. After a quiet few weeks, Chase Claypool had 4 catches for 56 yards and a touchdown. James Washington had two catches for 30 yards. Grade: A

Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, almost. Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked by the Bengals, although they did hit him 8 times. Still, Roethlisberger had time to throw. The Steelers run blocking is another question altogether as it was AOWL thought the game against Cincinnati. As the weather gets colder, the Steelers are going to need to be able to the ball. They’ve struggled to establish the run over the last two weeks against teams with weak rushing defenses. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu’s return helped the Steelers limit the Bengals rushing attack, although Bengals running backs had some success. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt had “quiet” days in terms of the stat sheet but logged 77% and 78% of the snaps on a defense that gave up 10 points. Grade: B

Linebackers
Robert Spillane led Steelers linebackers in tackles and his sack helped force a field goal, following the fake punt. That fake punt was needed in part because of a Bud Dupree sack. Vince Williams did his damage with 4 bone crushing tackles. T.J. Watt logged 4 quarterback hits and registered two sacks helping kill 2 second quarter drives when the score was close and Joe Burrow was earning his “Introduction to the AFC North.” Grade: A

Secondary
There are a lot of stats that you can pull out of the secondary play, but one stands out: 0-13 on third downs. Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles, followed by Minkah Fitzpatrick. Steven Nelson defensed 1 pass and otherwise his name was not heard much – which is a good thing. Marcus Allen and Antoine Brooks Jr. saw their first real playing time in the secondary. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect on 3 field goal and 3 extra point attempts. Jordan Berry boomed off punts. The Steelers kick and punt coverages shut down Cincinnati, clearly benefitting from Derek Watt’s presence. Ray-Ray McCloud gives the Steelers the type of return man weapon that they’ve lacked for a long, long time. The unit did get caught on a fake punt, but its impact was negligible. Still, the grade has to come down. Grade: A-

Coaching
For the past two weeks, Keith Butler’s defense has had to rely on big plays to provide big plays to deliver victory. There’s nothing wrong with that, but against the Bengals, the Steelers defense went back to basics.
Cincinnati did enjoy a little more success than the scoreboard suggests, but you can’t really sustain success when you fail to convert 3rd downs, and the Bengals failed at that 13 times.

The Bengals loaded up the line of scrimmage and dared Ben Roethlisberger to beat them and Big Ben beat them – badly. Let’s be clear, when your offense goes 4 of 5 in the Red Zone and outscores an opponent by 36 points a lot of things are going right.

  • Still, this is the third consecutive week the Steelers have failed to establish the run.

The Steelers tried, from various formations, including their “Jumbo” package and nothing worked. That’s got to be a concern for Randy Ficthner and Shaun Sarrett.

COVID-19 hit the Steelers hard, taking Vance McDonald from the lineup and preventing 4 other starters, including Ben Roethlisberger, from practicing. This came on the heels of a brutal 3 game road stretch. Had you come down from Mars, you’d have never of known that given the way the Steelers played this week, and that is a credit to Mike Tomlin. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden after defending a pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
Sometimes quarterbacks decide to “pick on someone.” Joe Burrow made his decision early, targeting Tyler Boyd, Brandon Tate and A.J. Green – a legitimate offensive weapons who happened to be covered by the same man. Not only were none of them a factor in this game because of the corner covering them, but this cornerback also batted away 3 pass and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Cowboys – 8-0 ≠ Perfection Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his class realizes that 8-0 does not equal perfection, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Eric Ebron, Saivion Smith, Steelers vs Cowboys

Eric Ebron leaps over Saivion Smith for six. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via Arizona Sports

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger struggled, again, for much of the first 30 minutes and was completely ineffective. Then he came alive to lead 3 touchdown drives all while protecting the ball. Roethlisberger remains unable to connect with receivers deep. Mason Rudolph came in at the end of the first half and looked like a QB doing mop up work when more was warranted. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland all saw action. None of the men were particularly effective rushing the ball, and James Conner’s two catches lost yards. The running backs didn’t get much help rushing the ball, but you’d still like to see more. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron only caught 3 passes for 22 yards but one of those was for the go ahead touchdown. Vance McDonald caught 1 pass for 2 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster continues to prove his worth with 9 catches for 93 yards and a tough touchdown. James Washington hasn’t been asked to do much this year, but he’s delivered when called upon as he did when scoring the first touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches for 42 yards. Chase Claypool had 8 catches for 69 yards but slid with the Steelers needed a first down. Grade: B

Offensive Line
On the plus side, Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked and only hit twice, although he got injured on one of those hits. On the negative side, the Cowboys run defense completely smothered the Steelers rushing offense. That created long third downs and forced the Steelers to be one dimensional in the 2nd half. This must not continue. Grade: C-

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Garrett Gilbert, Steelers vs Cowbosy

Cam Heyward after sacking Garrett Gilbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Look at the stats and you’ll see that Cam Heyward only had a half sack and a tackle and a half for a loss. But that sack he split was a monster play that should have ended the game. Stephon Tuitt had four tackles and one for a loss. Isaiah Buggs and 3 tackles and Henry Mondeaux had one that went for a loss. Dallas didn’t run over the Steelers, but they did better than they should have. Grade: B

Linebackers
Robert Spillane had 8 tackles. T.J. Watt might have “only” split half a sack with Heyward, but he had 3 QB hits and batted 3 passes down. Bud Dupree had a tackle and a QB hit. Alex Highsmith continues to see his playing time increase and had 3 tackles and a sack. Dallas had more success converting third downs than they should have. Grade: B

Secondary
The Cowboys made some long completions, but overall Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds had solid games. Cam Sutton forced a fumble. But the real star of the game was Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose fumble recovery set up a field goal and whose interception took at least a field goal off of the board for the Cowboys, while setting up another Steelers field goal – that’s a nine point swing. Which doesn’t even factor in his final pass deflection. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Where to start? The Steelers got suckered on a lateral during a punt return. OK. That’s understandable if not excusable. But Chris Boswell placed the ball exactly where he wanted to and Dallas still got a 64 yard kick return. Now throw in a missed extra point, a missed field goal and a blocked extra point. Easily the worst day ever for a Danny Smith-coached Steelers special teams unit. Grade: F

Mike Tomlin, Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Cowboys

Mike Tomlin and Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Coaching
It is clear that the loss of both Devin Bush and Tyson Alualu is taking its toll on the Steelers defense. Yet Keith Butler continues to scheme to minimize those losses and to adjust during games. While they may be giving up yards, the Steelers defense continues to deliver with big plays at critical moments.

  • Randy Fichtner’s got a different set of challenges.

Outside of Derek Watt, he hasn’t lost any starters, yet he continues to start slowly. The Steelers struggle to establish the run, while the deep ball fails to be a factor. But like Butler, Fichtner continues to make adjustments on the fly, and while the Steelers offense might be “boring” it is putting points on the board when it counts.

  • Credit Mike Tomlin for being smart enough to understand that 8-0 equals not perfection in the NFL.

Being smart enough to realize you don’t know everything is a virtue in life and the NFL and it is one that Tomlin possess. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The “usual suspects” on the Steelers defense made ESPN highlight-reel Splash Plays. And make no mistake about it, those plays were critical to the game’s outcome. But so were bread-and-butter plays turned in down after down, and no one epitomized that more than the defense’s leading tackler who dropped two players for losses, which is why Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Cowboys.

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Minkah Magic! Steelers Defeat Cowboys 25-19 as Fitzpatrick Helps Pittsburgh Avoid Trap Game

Google “Trap Game” and you’ll get many definitions. Some are better than others. The best had nothing to do with sports and came from the late, great Mr. Jim Baker, my 8th grade World Studies teacher, who would chide the class:

  • This was a ‘gimmie’ and you blew it.

Mr. Baker was talking about blowing assignments that should have been an easy “A.” A trap game is one you “should” win but end up losing.

Mike Tomlin has been unfairly criticized for many things during his tenure, but there’s no arguing that Tomlin teams tend to get tripped up by trap games. On Sunday, against the Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers almost tripped again. But they didn’t because this time they had Minkah Magic on their side….

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowobys

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the ball, saves touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Half Full or Half Empty? How About Just Half a Glass?

NFL teams rarely play 3 consecutive road games. Winning 3 straight road games is rarer yet. Winning two of the three against the a conference and division heavyweight is more difficult yet. But both of those wins came with a half-full/half-empty element to them.

Cam Sutton, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Cam Sutton tries to stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Steelers played a phenomenal first half against the Titans, only to cling on to victory thanks to a missed field goal. Against the Ravens, the Steelers played one of their worst first halves of offensive football in the Tomiln era, gave up tons of yards, yet delivered decisive play after decisive play in the 2nd half to win.

  • And so it was against the Dallas Cowboys.

On paper, the Steelers should have steamrolled the Cowboys, a team that was reeling even before it found itself needing to start its 4th or 5th string quarterback. It should have been so simple. Yet, it wasn’t:

  • James Conner struggled, plodding for 2.4 yards a carry instead of running strong
  • Ben Roethlisberger struggled to connect on the deep ball and couldn’t convert 3rd downs
  • Garrett Gilbert played more like Dallas’ next Tony Romo than its next Babe Laufenberg
  • It was Dallas, and not Pittsburgh that moved the chains and possessed the clock

So instead of dominating Dallas, the Steelers were looking at a 13-0 deficit with 3:50 left to play. Just as they had against Baltimore, and just as they had against Tennessee, the question wasn’t whether the glass was half empty or half full, but rather why the Steelers seemed to be stuck with half a glass.

Steelers Come Alive @ 2 Minute Warning

The key word there is “seemed.” Just after the two minute warning, Ben Roethlisberger tweaked his knee, and almost as if on cue:

Dallas got the ball back, and a quick pass from Garrett Gilbert to CeeDee Lamb looked promising until Cam Sutton knocked the ball loose, regaining possession at the Cowboy’s 39. Mason Rudolph came in to complete a few passes, but those amounted to little more than chump change.

  • Still, it was enough for Chris Boswell to kick a franchise-record 59 yard field goal.

Instead of heading into half time on the ropes, the Steelers had narrowed the score to a very manageable 13 to 9.

Special Teams Snafus Nearly Sabotage Steelers

Steelers fans with long memories know of the team’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde relationship with special teams coaches. Jon Kolb was a legendary tackle for Chuck Noll, but a nightmare as a special teams coach. George Stewart followed him, and his special teams strike force helped craft the 1989 Steelers Cinderella story.

Bobby April gained cult hero status for his special teams prowess during the 1995 Steelers failed Super Bowl run, while Jay Hayes disastrous special teams foul ups paved the way for the Tom Brady era in the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • Many fans in Steelers Nation have felt Danny Smith was on the wrong side of that divide.

I’d argue that wouldn’t have been fair to Smith, but not one can argue that during 2020, special teams have been an asset for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Until they set foot in Jerry’s World, where:

  • Chris Boswell missed his first extra point
  • Boswell then missed his next field goal (although a penalty gave him a re-try)
  • The Steelers got suckered on a lateral during an 83 yard punt return
  • The Cowboys blocked an extra point
  • Rico Dowdle transformed a picture perfect 64 yard “mortar kick” into a 64 yard return

The math is pretty simple, the 83 yard punt return set up an easy Dallas field goal, and the two botched extra points took two points off the board for the Steelers. That’s a 5 point swing against Pittsburgh…

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Cowboys

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers 2nd Half Comeback That Almost Came Up Short

True to form the Steelers fielded a different team in the 2nd half, that featured the following fireworks:

  • 75 and 79 yard drives that ended with touchdown passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron
  • Another 75 yard drive that started at Pittsburgh’s 1 and ended with a field goal
  • A 5-play negative 1-yard Cowboys drive at the 2 minute warning

That Cowboy drive ended with a hellacious Cam Heyward/ T.J. Watt sack on 4th and 8 with 1:45 left.

  • The game should have ended there. Except it didn’t.

The Steelers got the ball back at the Dallas 24. James Conner ran twice for little effect. On third down Ben Roethlisberger connected with Chase Claypool, but Claypool only got 5 yards, bringing up 4th and 1. On 4th and one James Conner got stoned for a 4 yard loss.

Dallas was not only in it, it had a chance to win it.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowboys

Minkah Fitzpatrick after saving the day for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Boston Globe.

Minkah Magic = Difference Maker for Steelers

Steelers fans have seen these situations before and suffered from them all too often – just remember the 2nd half of the 2018 season. But Dallas didn’t close the deal here, for the same reason it failed to put Pittsburgh away at two other points in the game: Minkah Fitzpatrick.

  • Minkah recovered the Cowboys fumble late in the first half, setting up the Steelers field goal
  • Dowdle’s 64 yard kick return gave Dallas perfect field position, only for Minkah to intercept the ball

And so it was. Dallas got the ball back with 38 seconds left. Gilbert moved the team 58 yards. The prevent defense looked like it was about to prevent the Steelers from winning. Then, on 3rd an 4 from the Pittsburgh 23 with 0:04 left, Gilbert fired at CeeDee Lamb.

  • As he did last week, Minkah Fitzpatrick stepped up and batted away the final pass.

Once again, Minkah Magic put the Pittsburgh Steelers over the top.

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Steelers Defeat Browns 38-7, as Pittsburgh Shows Poise while Cleveland Caves

The Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns 38-7 at Heinz Field to deliver Pittsburgh’s first 5-0 start since 1978. This was the franchises’ biggest regular season clash since the Steelers 27-7 AFC Central clinching win in December 1994. 2020’s edition had all of the makings of a barn burner.

  • Cleveland has an elite rushing offense.
  • Pittsburgh has an elite rushing defense.
  • The Browns seem to score at will on their opening drives.
  • Who remembers the last time the Steelers scored a touchdown on their opening drive?

Instead of a barn burner, the Steelers blew out the Browns for one simple reason: Pittsburgh’s poise was on display throughout the game, Cleveland’s was MIA.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Browns, Minkah pick six

Minkah Fitzpatrick’s pick six put the Steelers up 10-0 early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

The Butler Calls It:  Minkah is Just Fine

As if on cue, the Steelers offense marched down the field after a series of strong James Conner runs, reaching the Red Zone only to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal. Another week, another touchdownless opening drive.

  • One of the whispers heard below the radar during the Steelers 4-0 start has been, “Where’s Minkah?“

Minkah Fitzpatrick was a difference maker for the Steelers a year ago; his big plays easily turned the outcome of 2 or 3 games if not more.

Yet, Minkah had kept a low profile thus far in 2020. While that might not be the liability that some suggest, the fact that Minkah’s name hasn’t been mentioned much and the Steelers 3rd down defense has been atrocious are hard to chalk up to coincidence.

Pressured by reporters about Fitzpatrick during the week, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler retorted, “Minkah will be fine.”

Butler was right. On the Brown’s first third down Minkah played Baker Mayfield like a harp, picked off the ball and ran it into the end zone to put Pittsburgh up 10-0.

No Panic Despite Big Ben’s Slow Start

The stat sheet suggests that Ben Roethlisberger had a stellar game, with a 101 passer rating, a 14 for 22 yard completion rate, one touchdown and no interceptions. Ben Roethlisberger did play a good game, but he did anything but start strong.

Chase Claypool streches for the pylon. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

  • The Browns batted away 3 slant attempts to connect with James Washington, making it look easier each time.

The Steelers next two possessions resulted in quick three and outs, including one that saw Ben Roethlisberger give up a 12-yard sack. With the help of a Devin Bush and Stephon Tuitt sack, the Steelers defense kept the Brown’s honest by forcing punts, but consecutive 3 and outs can demoralize an offense – if they let it.

The Steelers offense declined to do that, and after some chink-and-dink action to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron, Ben Roethlisberger lit it up with a 37 yard pass to Mapletron aka Chase Claypool who set up a 1 yard James Conner touchdown.

Once again, poise instead of panic prevailed for Pittsburgh.

Mayfield Blinks, Roethlisberger Delivers

A 17-0 lead after only 20 minutes of play is hardly a death sentence in the NFL, but it does provide an inflection that separates pretenders from contenders. The Browns responded to their 17 point deficit with:

  • Kareem Hunt getting stuffed by Chris Wormley and Vince Williams for no gain.
  • A holding penalty.
  • An ill-advised pass induced by a Stephon Tuitt pressure that forced a Cam Sutton interception

Less than two plays later Ben Roethlisberger found James Washington deep for a 28 yard touchdown hook up.

Second Half – Cleveland Crumbles, Pittsburgh Rumbles

Credit Cleveland for tacking on a touchdown before the half. The Browns got the ball back to start the 2nd half. A long, workman like touchdown drive was all that separated them from making it a 10 point game.

  • Instead, their first drive netted -16 yards thanks to a Bud Dupree sack and a Stephon Tuitt forced fumble

Randy Fichtner’s offense couldn’t do much with its first chance of the half. Cleveland got the ball back, won a replay challenge, and faced a 4th and 1 at their own 29. This time T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward stoned Kareem Hunt for a 1-yard loss.

While they only had 28 yards to go, the Steelers managed to milk 5 minutes off of the clock as they converted their takeover on downs into another touchdown with a 3 yard Chase Claypool run.

Pittsburgh’s Poise Carries Steelers to 5-0

Claypool’s touchdown run put the Steelers up 31 to 7 effectively ending the game as the third quarter drew to a close. But Pittsburgh’s poise, and Cleveland lack of it continued to shine brightly through the 4th quarter action:

  • Two more times the Browns would test Pittsburgh on 4th down…
  • …and two more times the Steelers would win the battle of wills
  • Kevin Stefanski pulled Baker Mayfield, as a matter of prudence rather than panic, but pull him he did

And then there’s this:

Pittsburgh’s poise was present on many other occasions against the Browns. Joe Haden hadn’t had the strongest start to his season, yet he stepped up to make several plays. Benny Snell showed he can be a sure handed closer, in defending late leads.

The day’s most ominous moment came in the late in the first half when Devin Bush left the game with an injury that Mike Tomlin declared as “significant,” which is likely an ACL tear that will end his season. Yet, Pittsburgh maintained its poise as Robert Spillane did an admirable job answering the “Next man up” call.

  • CBS chose the Steelers-Browns game as its marquee matchup of the week.

We understand why. Both teams arrived at Heinz Field with 4 wins. Only one would leave with 5. On his first day in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin postulated that sometimes the biggest test isn’t how you handle failure, but how you handel success.

The 2020 season is still young, but thus far Pittsburgh is passing that test with flying colors. Cleveland? Not so much. And that’s why the Steelers are 5-0.

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Glad to be Wrong! Steelers Sign Cam Heyward to 5 Year Extension

Count this as another time when a blogger begs to be wrong, but this time gets his wish.

Less than a week ago yours truly suggested that COVID-19 would test “The Steelers Way” like never before. Namely, the expected 2021 NFL salary cap drop salary cap drop would complicate the Steelers ability to do one of the things they’ve always done best – resign their own players before they reach free agency.

  • The implications for retaining a player like Cam Heyward appeared to be ominous.

I wasn’t alone. Just three days ago Ed Bouchette of The Athletic was beating a similar drum of gloom and doom one the prospects of keeping Cam Heyward in Pittsburgh.

  • How good it is to be wrong!

Steelers.com announced that Cam Heyward had signed a 5 year extension, and Jeremy Fowler of ESPN reports that the deal is for $75.1 million dollars and includes 65.6 million in new money. The deal will make Heyward the highest paid defensive player over 30.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Nick Chubb, Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Browns

Cam Heyward tackles Nick Chubb. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Although Cameron Heyward will turn 31 this year, he is coming off what was arguably his best season thus far. Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew in 2019, registering 9 sacks, 11 tackles for losses, notching 23 QB hits, defensing 6 passes while making a career record 83 tackles.

Signing Heyward a “Win” But Complicated Challenges Lie Ahead

Signing Cam Heyward represents a major win for the Steelers front office, as it keeps their biggest player off the market long before the bidding will ever start. But Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have difficult personnel choices to make.

Starters JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Bud Dupree and Matt Feiler will all reach the end of their rookie deals this year, and veteran Alejandro Villanueva is heading into the final year of his contract. Key reserves such as Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton are also heading into their final years.

The Steelers already have 40 players under contract for 2021 costing approximately 197 million dollars, putting them 22 million over the projected 2021 salary cap before factoring in Cam Heyward’s new deal or the 2021 draft class.

Difficult decisions lie ahead, but fortunately Cam Heyward won’t be a cap causality.

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COVID 19 Will Test “Steelers Way,” Art Rooney II Like Never Before

The “Steelers Way” is at once palpable and nebulous. The Pittsburgh Steelers march to their own drummer, how they do it eludes precise definition.

The “Steelers Way” extends far beyond contract negotiation and salary cap management, but COVID-19 will soon test those aspects of the team’s MO like never before.

  • To illustrate how, we’ll revive an anecdote shared here before.

It was the summer of 1993. Free agency had just arrived and was transforming the league. Free agent shopping sprees where the norm in the NFL with that year’s top free agent, Reggie White, being wooed by gifts of city keys and ticker tape parades.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

COVID-19 Will Test Art Rooney II like never before. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

Free agency forced Pittsburgh to say goodbye to franchise stalwarts Hardy Nickerson, Tunch Ilkin as well as young upstarts like Jerrol Williams. Tampa Bay almost signed away starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell. And while Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe responded by bringing in players like Kevin Greene and John L. Williams, those signings failed to quiet “the sky is falling” mantra mouthed by fans and the press.

  • The Steelers also made two curious moves.

First they extended Greg Lloyd’s contract, a year before he was set to become free agency. Then they did the same thing same thing for Dermontti Dawson, prompting on one fan to rip Rooney on an AOL message board:

Someone needs to sit Dan Rooney down and EXPLAIN to him that the whole point of free agency is to get better by signing OTHER TEAMS players instead of wasting time signing your OWN PLAYERS.

Had social media existed then, this post would have certainly secured hundreds of Retweets and Facebook likes. Fans in those days weren’t any more shy about castigating Dan Rooney as “cheap” than they are today about criticizing Art Rooney II for being too patient with Mike Tomlin.

Today, resigning your own players before they reach free agency standard NFL practice. The Steelers showed the way, and the rest of the NFL copied. It is easy to see why.

Since that summer, the Steelers have suffered just 3 losing seasons, been to the playoffs 17 times, won 13 AFC Central or AFC North titles, played in 8 conference championships, won 4 AFC Championships and taken Lombardi’s back to Pittsburgh following wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Sure, the Patriots have more hardware, albeit some of it is tainted, and the Cowboys have one more Lombardi, but those are the only two franchises that can remotely touch the Steelers.

  • But the COVID-19 crisis is making it impossible for the Steelers to do one of the things they do best.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, it was conventional wisdom that starters such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner wouldn’t see contract extensions, in part due to salary cap considerations. When it became clear that COVID-19 wouldn’t “go away” before the NFL season, serious talk of extensions ended for most players, but some in the press still held out hope for a new deal for Cam Heyward.

  • Public comments by Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert now even seem to rule that out.

Cam Heyward isn’t the only starter the Steelers would normally be targeting for training camp extension. Bud Dupree’s asking price might be too steep, but starters like Matt Feiler and could be starters such as Zach Banner would be obvious candidates.

And while the smart move for a player like Mike Hilton would be to wait to test the open market, Cam Sutton is exactly the sort of under the radar player the Steelers would typical target for a 2nd contract heading into his fourth year.

But next year the NFL’s salary cap could and likely will drop to $175 million dollars. Per Jim Wexell’s calculations on Steel City Insider, “the Steelers have 40 players signed for 2021 at a cost of $197 million.”

Those types of numbers point to painful cuts and difficult departures as opposed to contract extensions designed to prop Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl window open.

The Rooneys have adpated the “Steelers Way” over time. For a long time, Dan Rooney balked at renegotiating contracts. Yet, when he renegotiated Kordell Stewart’s contract in the spring of 1999 he quipped that maybe you to things in 1999 that you didn’t do in 1933.

For a long time, the Steelers resisted the practice restructuring  contracts to free salary cap space. Since Art Rooney II took over the reigns from his father, contract restructures have become a Steelers staple.

COVID-19 figures to give the Art Rooney II’s adaptation skills a far stiffer test.

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Is Cam Sutton Really Challenging Mike Hilton for the Starting Slot Corner Position?

As the Steelers unique Heinz Field training camp begins to ramp up this week, complete with padded practices, there aren’t many starting jobs up for grabs.

There’s the battle for the starting right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, along with…….that’s really about it.

  • Seriously, try naming another starting position that’s up for grabs, as the Steelers, a team that’s missed the playoffs the previous two years, prepare for the 2020 regular season.

There is still intrigue–including the continued progress of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger following major elbow surgery that snuffed out his 2019 campaign; the development of second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush, a talent that could take an already explosive defense to a whole new level in 2020; the overall abilities of a rookie class that includes receiver Chase Claypool, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, guard Kevin Dotson and running back Anthony McFarland; and, oh yes, the progress of third-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, just one season after he turned in mixed results–at best–while filling in for an injured Roethlisberger.

  • But, to reiterate, starting jobs?

Not much news there, not unless you’re talking about the starting slot corner position that has been occupied the past three seasons by Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent — a diamond in the rough, if you will — who Kevin Colbert plucked out of nowhere in 2017 (the Patriots practice squad, actually) to make the Steelers roster and fill the void at a position that had been seriously neglected for many years.

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Not only did Hilton instantly fill a void, he became one of the better slot corners in the entire NFL, as the product from Ole Miss — or the same school that failed and oft-injured second-round pick (and believed to be slot-corner extraordinaire) Senquez Golson hailed from two years earlier–finished his rookie campaign with two interceptions, six passes-defensed and a whopping four sacks — including three in a blow-out victory over the Texans on Christmas Day.

  • Hilton has remained the Steelers starting slot corner–and one of the better ones in the league–ever since.

So who is supposedly coming for his job? How about Cameron Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft. That’s right, Sutton is believed to be a serious contender for the slot corner role, this summer.

And far be it for me to contradict “they” two summers in a row, but if you think about it, why would you take a player like Hilton, again, someone who is considered to be one of the better slot corners in the NFL, and bench him in his fourth season? That was a rhetorical question, because you wouldn’t.

And the Steelers won’t, either. This is just my theory (my conspiracy theory, if you will), but I think Pittsburgh is hoping Sutton makes the competition for the supposed open slot corner position close at training camp, but not close enough that he wins.

  • Why? Because both Hilton and Sutton are unrestricted free agents, next spring.

There’s already so much tape on Hilton that, even if he loses his starting job in 2020, interested teams will know enough about him to offer him a fat contract in 2021. As for Sutton, the only way he will truly be on anyone’s radar is if he starts in 2020–and excels.

If you’re the Steelers, why would you risk it? They already know what they have in Hilton. They thought enough of his abilities to tender him and pay him $3.2 million for the 2020 season. However, the whole tender thing won’t work for Hilton, next season. He’ll be able to shop his services to the highest bidder–and the highest bidder is likely to pay him much more money than the Steelers and their ongoing salary cap restrictions (restrictions that are about to get worse due to the revenue-shrinking pandemic)–would ever seriously consider.

With that in mind, you let Hilton start one more year at slot corner. In the meantime, you can keep Sutton in the same versatile role he’s been in since his rookie season.

Starting next season, the Steelers let Hilton walk and offer Sutton a team-friendly multi-year contract and hope that he settles for an annual salary on par with the $3.2 million Hilton is making in 2020.

  • But if Sutton becomes the starting slot corner this season, chances are, Pittsburgh won’t be able to afford to retain either him or Hilton in 2021.

Sound logical? I think so. The Steelers have a good thing going on defense, especially in a secondary that has seemingly found all the right parts after many years of struggle.

  • No sense in upsetting the apple-cart now, not when the unit looks poised to have another dominant season.

Let Hilton do his thing for one more season. After that, give the starting slot corner job to Sutton.

That’s my plan.

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Free Agency is Almost Here. Steelers Nation Won’t Have Artie Burns to Kick Around Anymore

In an ideal world, cornerback Artie Burns, a 2016 first-round pick out of Miami, wouldn’t be a part of the Steelers 2020 class of unrestricted free agents. All teams have fifth-year options on the contracts of rookies who were drafted in the first round, an option that must be picked up before the fourth year even starts.

The Steelers elected not to do that with Burns last offseason, a telling move that put not only his fifth but his fourth year with the team in jeopardy. Thankfully for Burns, he made the Steelers final 53-man roster out of training camp, but did he do enough in 2019 to warrant an extended stay into 2020 and beyond?

Artie Burns, Chris Conley touchdown Steelers, Steelers vs Chiefs 2018

Chris Conley burns Artie Burns for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Artie Burns’ Career with the Steelers

After the Steelers chose Burns with the 25th pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, to say the reactions were mixed would be a lie. They were overwhelmingly negative. Why? Burns was said to be raw and a poor tackler. Also, Burns played primarily man-to-man in college, while the Steelers implemented more zone coverages than any team in football in 2015. However, there were a select few who said that Burns had the potential to be the best cover corner in the 2016 draft.

And after becoming the starter midway through his rookie year, the views of those few in Burns’ corner appeared to be spot on, as he recorded three interceptions and 13 passes defensed. Burns started all 16 games in his sophomore year, and even though he appeared to struggle a bit with zone coverages, the arrow still pointed up, this despite a decline in play down the stretch and in the playoff loss to the Jaguars. Despite positive reviews out of training camp, as he battled the legendary Antonio Brown to a draw on most days, Burns play declined so much in 2018, he was benched after six games and was a non-factor in the secondary by the end of the season. Burns’ role a year ago was mainly on special teams; he barely factored into a much improved secondary, as he was on the field for only 66 defensive snaps and started just one game in place of an injured Joe Haden.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Artie Burns

Burns won’t command much of a market in free agency. After earning just under a million dollars last year, it’s safe to say the Steelers could possibly resign him at a bargain price for 2020–perhaps one of those “Show me” one-year contracts. Burns was a starter not long ago, and he appeared to hold his own in his lone start in 2019, while also contributing regularly on special teams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Artie Burns

The Steelers did have a much-improved secondary a year ago, but the fact that Burns hardly figured into the mix on defense–I’m sure the Steelers would have liked to spell the veteran Haden from time to time–was quite telling. Also, I’m sure the Steelers are eager to see what Justin Layne, a third-round pick out of Michigan State a year ago, can do in his second season. And with veteran Cameron Sutton in the mix, Burns may spend another season as the invisible entity in Pittsburgh’s secondary.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Artie Burns

If ever a player needed a fresh start, it’s Burns. And given what the team has at the top of the depth chart at corner in both Steven Nelson and Haden, I see no need for Pittsburgh to put up much of a fight to retain the services of Artie Burns.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to the Browns, Who got the F’s?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has just seen his classroom endure a traumatic incident here is the Steelers Report Card for the Body Bag Game” against the Browns.

Mason Rudolph, Larry Ogunjobi, Steelers Browns 2019 Body Bag Game

Larry Ogunjobi closes in on Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
The short week figured to test Mason Rudolph. Many are writing off Rudolph’s entire future based on one bad night which is foolish. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, Mason Rudolph did some nice things, particularly early in the game. But his interceptions were costly, and grew uglier as the night progressed. One plus, Mason Rudolph displayed excellent tackling technique. The Steelers had a shot to win despite giving up 14 quick points, but Rudolph’s picks killed those chances. Grade: F Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Sometimes the eye can see what it wants to, because memory has James Conner playing very well before he got hurt. However, the stat sheet of 10 yards on 5 carries and 1 catch for 7 yards tells a very different tale. Jaylen Samuels had a decent night running and catching, but his opportunities were limited. Trey Edmunds continues to show he has some serviceable skills as a reserve running back, but blocking is not one of those. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 of 7 passes targeted to him, but with wide receivers dropping like flies he really didn’t appear to be a factor in the passing game. Moreover, on at least one pass early in the first half, McDonald appeared to mail it in terms of blocking. Nick Vannett caught 1 pass on one target. The tight ends have a chance to boost this offense, but do not appear to be taking advantage. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Wow. Where’s Cobi Hamilton when you need him? JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson were having decent games before blatant head shots took them both out. James Washington did well. As for Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton? Well, Holton caught his first pass, but missed on a deep one he should have had. Tevin Jones had a hand on a catchable pass that got intercepted. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
4-7-11. Those were Cleveland’s numbers for sacks, tackles for losses and quarterback hits. A quality line can’t make miracles, but can certainly provide an offense the foundation it needs to overcome deficiencies at the skill positions. On paper, and certainly when measured in terms of salary cap investment, the Steelers should be fielding an offensive line that does just that. But that wasn’t apparent against the Browns, and hasn’t been apparent for much of the season. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Browns actually sniffed 100 yards in total rushing, but the Steelers made them work for it with the defensive line accounting for 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward led the team in tackles which is impressive. Grade: B

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Nick Chubb, Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Browns

Cam Heyward tackles Nick Chubb. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had the team’s lone sack, hit the QB 2 other times and helped drop at least three Browns for losses. Vince Williams and Devin Bush clocked in at 3rd and 4th on tackles while Bud Dupree had 2.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The Steelers defense pressured Baker Mayfield, but Mayfield eluded the rush and, at least early in the game made the Steelers pay. That’s not all on the linebackers, but some of it is. Grade: C+

Secondary
Cleveland’s first touchdown looked alarmingly easy. The Steelers defense was in complete disarray on the Browns second touchdown and the play that preceded it. After that the Steelers secondary settled down, and helped limit the Browns to go 6-16 on third down conversions. Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton led the unit in tackles and passes defensed. Grade: C

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns 2019

Jarvis Landry scores with nary a Steeler nearby. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Cleveland.com

Special Teams
Diontate Johnson and Cam Sutton returned two punt for an average of 9 yards, which is slightly above the league mean, just as was the Browns kickoff return average. Steeler punt coverage held the Browns below the league average, where as Tony Brooks-James two kick retruns average 16 yards which could be the reason why he’s looking for a job today.

Chris Boswell missed on one field goal, but that came off of a bad snap/bad hold. Boswell made his other attempt and his lone extra point attempt. Grade: C-

Coaching
Keith Butler’s defense has been the strength of the team and the unit was clearly stumbling to find its footing during the first 20 minutes of the game. Following that, however, the Cleveland Browns were scoreless until a Mason Rudolph interception at the 9 yard line with 6:32 remaining essentially gifted them another score.

  • Randy Ficthner’s predictable offense is taking a lot of heat from commentators for whom the Report Card has a lot of respect.

And those commentaries have a lot of merit. Still, Randy Ficthner is charged guiding a backup quarterback through an offense designed for a franchise quarterback with backup and now scout team players thrust into starting roles at the skill positions.

  • Anyone really think that adding a few more layers of complexity is wise?

While preparing such a young team on a short week while on the road might not be “fair,” the results indicate that the Steelers was defense up to the challenge while the offense wasn’t. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when the Steelers offense was struggling to gain any semblance of traction, he kept the Browns offense from gaining any sort of field position advantage by booming off 6 punts that averaged 49.6 yards. This is helped keep the Steelers in the game until it tun overs took their toll in the 4th quarter, and for that Jordan Berry wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Body Bag Game.

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NFL Places Anthony Chickillo on Commissioners List. Steelers Resign Jayrone Elliott

Anthony Chickillo is already feeling some of the consequences resulting from his alleged involvement in a domestic dispute with his girlfriend last weekend at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. As seems to becoming standard operating procedure in the NFL, Roger Goodell has placed Anthony Chickillo on the Commissioner’s exempt list.

While on this list, Anthony Chickillo will continue to receive his salary, but can neither play nor attend games, although he can be at team headquarters for injury therapy or non-football related activities.

Ola Adeniyi is also an available backup behind starters T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.

Interestingly enough, the New York Giants waived Steelers preseason stand out Tuzar Skipper. Tuzar Skipper had made the Steelers final 53 man roster, but the Steelers waived him prior to the loss to the Patriots to make room for Johnny Holton.

Pittsburgh had hoped to bring him back on to the practice squad, but the Giants claimed him off of waivers. Clearly the Steelers see something more in Elliot, but they could still add Skipper to the practice squad.

Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Anthony Chickillo in happier times, who found himself on the NFL’s Commissioner’s list. Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via PennLive.com

Steelers Exit Bye Week, Return to Health

Mason Rudolph has cleared the concussion protocol and will start for the Steelers this Monday against Miami. Steven Nelson, Roosevelt Nix, Vance McDonald and James Washington have returned to practice and are expected to play.

While the Steelers offense could certainly use a shot in the arm from Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. acquitted himself well in relief of James Conner in the win at Los Angeles. If Joe Haden cannot start, Artie Burns could get the nod to start his second straight game in over a year, although Cam Sutton would be a candidate as well based on his performance against the Chargers.

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